African-American Roles in the War for Independence and the Civil War
America was founded on the principle of freedom. With this in mind, it comes as little surprise that both the War for Independence and the Civil War have the similarity that they both involved the struggle for freedom. Both wars sought to overcome oppression and both wars encompassed a vision of basic human rights connected with a sense of justice. The other similarity these two wars shared was the heroic efforts of African-Americans in their participation in the fight for freedom. This paper will seek to compare and contrast their involvement in these to similar, but different wars.
To understand African-American involvement in the Revolutionary War, one must first paint a picture of what colonial life was like. Colonists faced the labor-intensive task of trying to carve out a life on a new continent. These were harsh conditions unlike many had ever experienced. Everything had to be created from scratch, roadways, housing, farmland, etc. In addition, company backers, which paid the way for many of the colonists and continued to supply them with goods, expected a return on their investment, in the form of exported goods from the New World.
Colonists were in desperate need of laborers to accomplish these enormous tasks, and as such the American colonists turned to the use of indentured servants and slaves.
As the colonies grew into the original Thirteen Colonies, the labor demands intensified. Many of the indentured servants were freed, and thus, only the slaves were left to continue on with the labor. In a way to fulfill this increasing demand, in 1650, slavery was legalized in America.
As war broke out in the New World, African-Americans, whether they were free, slaves, or ex-slaves, both men and some women, took up arms and fought along side white colonists, in an effort to establish their independence from England's rule. Approximately 5,000 African-Americans served in the War for Independence. "Some carried muskets. Still others served as substitutes for White men as messengers, guides, teamsters, laborers, and spies. They served not only in the Army, but in the Continental Navy as well. And, most served in integrated units."
Interestingly, General George Washington initially refused to allow slaves in the military service. He felt it would be devastating to slave owners to have their slaves leave the plantations to enlist in the military. As a slave owner himself, George Washington owned more than 300 slaves, and had intimate knowledge of what this would do to his personal holdings should a quantity of his slaves take up arms and leave his service. Washington had made this stance not because he doubted the courage of slaves, but because he believed it would be a detriment to the American economy. ("Revolutionary War")
However, this did not stop slaves from joining the military.
In New England, many slaves ran away to join the army; others joined in place of their masters - a practice that continued up to the time of the Civil War." Finally, after Washington discovered that the Royal Governor of Virginia, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, was actively enlisting slaves and indentured servants into the British army with the promise of giving freedom to all slaves that would fight for the King's army, Washington lifted the ban on slaves enlisting in the Colonial military, and all African-Americans were allowed to fight for the freedom the country now enjoys.
When the Civil War came about, slavery was still in effect, and obviously, in question. "With President Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the Civil War became a war to save the union and to abolish slavery."
Just as in the War for Independence, the Civil War would end up being about securing freedom and basic human rights, however, at first many felt it was about reuniting the North and the South.
Despite the perception, at first, that this was a 'White man's war', many African-Americans were willing and eager to fight.
W]e are ready to stand by and defend the Government with 'our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,'" a meeting of free blacks in Boston announced. When the war began, black men in cities across the North enthusiastically formed informal rifle companies and attempted to join the army. To their surprise, the U.S. government rejected their offers. That policy would quickly change.
Congress passed two acts allowing African-Americans to enlist in the military. However, instead of being solely concerned with the economic effect of slaves leaving their masters to join the Union military, now there was concern by White soldiers, that the African-American soldiers lacked the courage necessary to fight and fight well. However, "in October, 1862, African-American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederates at the battle of Island Mound, Missouri."
Fourteen African-American Regiments were mustered and ready to fight by August of 1863. And, by the end of the war, approximately 180,000 African-Americans served the Union Army, in 163 units. Additional African-Americans, both free and slaves, also served in the Union Navy. And throughout the war, African-Americans continued to prove how valuable they truly were to the military.
At the battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, the African-American soldiers bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire."
Despite the failure of the attack, it once again showed their mettle. The bravery continued
On July 17, 1863, at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, the 1st Kansas Colored fought with courage again. Union troops under General James Blunt ran into a strong Confederate force under General Douglas Cooper. After a two-hour bloody engagement, Cooper's soldiers retreated. The 1st Kansas, which had held the center of the Union line, advanced to within fifty paces of the Confederate line and exchanged fire for some twenty minutes until the Confederates broke and ran.
Of course one of the most famous battles fought by courageous African-Americans occurred on July 18, 1863, with the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina by the 54th Massachusetts. "The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly-fortified Confederate positions. The soldiers of the 54th scaled the fort's parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat."
These soldiers were found to be so valuable, that Congress deemed it appropriate for the continuance of African-Americans in the military service. This was a shift in thinking, even for Northern Whites, who had at the beginning of the war doubted their valor. These soldiers were formed two Cavalry Regiments and four Infantry Regiments. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were "made up entirely of African-Americans. These two cavalry regiments would later be nicknamed 'Buffalo Soldiers' by the Cheyenne and Comanche because of their valor and courage."
As one can see there were many similarities in African-Americans' role in both the War for Independence and the Civil War. Obviously, in both cases, African-Americans answered the call of duty to fight for freedom and their country. They fought bravely in both wars, as courageously as any other soldier, and proved that they were equally as valuable as any White soldier. In both wars, African-American slaves snuck away from their masters to fight for what they thought was right and just, ready to face death in order to promote freedom and justice.
However, the main difference in their role is the acceptance by the White soldiers. In the Revolutionary War, African-American soldiers were welcomed in the effort to free the Colonists from British oppression. As mentioned, there was concern over what it would do to the economics of the young country, to have slaves taken away from the necessary labor tasks, but there was never question to the valor within those souls. However, at the beginning of the Civil War,…